Turks united in nationalism, divided on Erdoğan

A far-reaching new study by the Washington DC think tank Center for American Progress has charted the views of citizens across Turkey on their government and national identity, finding that, while opinion was predictably split on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, a significant majority of the country shares similar ideas on Turkish nationhood.

The responses to questions around the governance of Turkey were “almost entirely correlated with political affiliation”, with voters for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) far more likely, for example, to respond positively to questions on the direction the country was heading.

AKP voters were also far more likely to respond affirmatively when questioned on whether their living standards had improved in the last year than voters for opposition parties, a large majority of whom say their conditions have worsened.

This trend was reproduced again on questions of the ruling party’s handling of the economy, on questions over Erdoğan’s performance as president.

Stark divisions were also seen in Turks’ opinion of the government’s policies since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, though these do not so closely match political affiliation.

The AKP has been leading a harsh crackdown on dissent since implementing a state of emergency in the wake of the coup that has hit thousands of journalists, intellectuals and activists.

While 39 percent of Turks believe that the crackdown is being conducted to “eliminate and intimidate critical voices”, overall, more Turks at 42 percent see the action as “based on a legitimate threat”.

The study turned up some fascinating results on Turks’ attitudes to their national identity, revealing significant consensus on national ideals.

The vast majority of Turks – 86 percent – said that being Turkish was important to them; while a majority of all of Turkey’s parliamentary party members agreed with this notion, with the exception of the People’s Democratic Party, which represents a mostly Kurdish constituency.

The findings also demonstrated a set of shared values around what this “Turkishness” means, with significantly more than 50 percent of Turks agreeing that certain items were “very important” to their national identity:

“Looking at the most intense responses—those receiving a rating of “very important”—a hierarchy of national identity emerges. A number of items directly related to citizenship rank in the top tier of most important concepts for being a Turk: “speaking the Turkish language,” with 68 percent saying “very important”; “supporting the Turkish military,” with 65 percent responding “very important”; “being a citizen/holding a Turkish passport,” with 61 percent responding “very important”; and “being born in Turkey,” with 59 percent saying “very important.” “A belief in strong families,” with 68 percent responding “very important,” and “being Muslim,” with 67 percent saying “very important” also rank high.”

Meanwhile, 80 percent of Turks agreed that “Islam plays a central role in my life and is essential to my understanding of Turkish identity” The study also showed that pride in the Ottoman Empire – long championed by the ruling party – has taken central importance in more than half of Turks’ perceptions of their national identity.

Less popular were explicitly chauvinistic expressions of nationalism:

“Notably, national chauvinism and backing of the current government receive much lower levels of intensity in terms of their importance to Turkish self-perception. Less than half of Turks—47 percent—say that “believing Turkey is better than other nations” is very important to their conception of what it means to be a Turk, and only about one-third, or 34 percent, of Turks believe that “supporting the current government” is a very important component of national identity.”

Turkey’s place internationally, and relations with its NATO ally the United States, also provoked striking results, with 84 percent of Turks describing themselves as “against global elites”, 55 percent preferring an isolationist foreign policy, and 46 percent agreeing that Turkey should “do more to confront the United States”, while 37 percent said Turkey should maintain its alliance.